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When President Bush endorsed the National Commission on Federal Election Reform’s report Tuesday, he may have delivered a blow to the nation’s broadcasters.

The commission — headed by former Presidents Carter and Ford –recommends that broadcast nets provide each of the presidential candidates with five minutes of free airtime during the 30 days leading up to the election — an idea that angers broadcasters.

“Most stations already give free airtime, but we oppose government-mandated free time,” said a spokesman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters.

In fact, network execs have contended in the past that candidates don’t always take advantage of the free time offered.

The report also urged cable and broadcast nets to wait until the polls have closed in the 48 contiguous states before projecting winners in the presidential election.

“This would be hopefully a voluntary commitment by the (media),” Carter said at a press conference. “If they don’t do it, then we recommend that Congress take action.”

Bush said that the report “identified some important concerns … for example, the over-eagerness of the media to report the outcome of elections.”

The White House appeared to be doing some spin control after the release of the report, saying that Bush has not yet endorsed each of the panel’s recommendations.

Apologies made

The report was prompted by the numerous snafus during last year’s presidential election. In February, network news toppers were called to Washington to testify before a congressional panel over botched election calls. Even before then, networks offered repeated mea culpas for bad Election Day calls, instituting a number of reforms. NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN all issued internal reports about what went wrong and recommendations for how the problems could be rectified.

Nets have largely agreed not to project a winner in any state until after the last poll has closed in that state, and advocate a national poll closing time. But, they resent governmental interference in what they see as a First Amendment issue.

“Everybody wants to see the system work efficiently, but legislation is not the remedy,” said one network news exec. “It seems antithetical to democracy to ask news organizations to withhold information they would otherwise report immediately.”

Broadcasters are taking a beating these days when it comes to the role they play in the electoral process.

Earlier this year, the TV industry was caught off guard when the Senate overwhelmingly approved campaign finance legislation forcing broadcasters to offer across-the-board, discounted rates for political ads. The legislation is now stalled in the House of Representatives but is expected to come up for a vote early this fall, with the broadcast provision intact.

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